Literary masterpiece Lolita is known as Vladimir Nabokov’s most controversial work. Yet the light of his life, the fire of his loins, his sin and soul, was butterflies. “A given landscape lives twice: as a delightful wilderness in its own right, and as the haunt of a certain butterfly or moth,” he once said.
Nabokov started collecting butterflies and moths when he was a child, a passion that was propagated further when, in 1940, he moved from Russia to the United States and got a job as Curator of Lepidoptera at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. He spent 14 hours a day for seven years sorting and mounting butterflies, during which time he ventured out on multiple road trips to make his own collection, and even developed an evolutionary theory related to Polyommatus or “blue” butterflies in 1945 – a theory that was tested and proven right in 2011.
In the summer of 1941, on May 26, he set out on his first road trip across America on Route 66. He drove for thousands of kilometres, only stopping every night at a roadside motel, to collect butterflies. These same cheap motels and the trip later became the setting for Lolita. The beautiful video above shows the story of his first road trip, and the collection that he sent to the American Museum of National History, where he also volunteered.
Suzanne Rab Green, a curatorial assistant at AMNH who appears in the stunning video above, came across a vintage White Owl cigar box filled with specimens from Nabokov’s collections, in sealed glassine envelopes with hand-written notes by the author. She geo-referenced and traced his three-week road trip, and curated his 1941 collection. A recent book from Yale University Press, Fine Lines, also reproduces 154 of his exquisite butterfly illustrations.
Although the recognition was posthumous, about 20 kinds of butterflies are named after Nabokov’s fictional characters. If one reads Lolita carefully, the author’s obsession with butterflies springs out of the pages, for instance, in his usage of words like “nymphet”, “fragile”, and “fairy-like” to describe Lolita, who metamorphoses from an unwitting, innocent girl to a grown woman. At one point, he writes, “An inquisitive butterfly passed, dipping, between us.”